I am a smoker, and I guess I’m obliged to admit that this makes me somewhat disgusting: I walk around smelling like an ashtray, my fingertips are often yellowed, I’m mostly out of breath after a vigorous walk up and down the back stairs of our office building to have a puff. Mea culpa. This tar-abused body is done fighting.

I love my addiction, love removing the perfect little cylinder from the package and tapping its edge against my lighter, love holding it in my lips unlit, love the flare of flame when my lighter meets the tobacco and the tiny curl of smoke that rises twisting above me, making the usually imperceptible currents of the air visible. Few things are as satisfying as the powerful toxins filling my lungs, nothing works better to focus my mind on a task.

Yet I’m quickly running out of places to enjoy the dirty habit I love so much. Like everyone else in the civilized world, I cannot smoke at my desk at work. By the mutual agreement of my wife and my landlord, I cannot smoke in my home. For the past couple of years I have been unable to smoke in donut shops, where I once spent hours draining refills and filling ashtrays while sketching out notes for novels and short stories and memoirs.

And as of June 1, the last frontier will be closed when the long-awaited ban on smoking in bars occurs across the GTA. I understand from talking to people that this is a very popular move, especially among the type of people who spend almost none of their money on booze and very little of their time in bars. It must be a comfort to the owners of taverns around the city that the Bikram-yoga crowd will finally feel comfortable stopping in for a cranberry and soda on their way home from the gym. Yet it strikes me as absurd that places dedicated to allowing people to relax by poisoning their livers will no longer be allowed to allow them to relax by poisoning their lungs.

I can hear the self-righteous heckling already. The poisoned atmosphere, the second-hand smoke, blah blah blah. Calm down. You’re probably right. Like I said, I’m done fighting.

Once upon a time, I would have taken issue with the shoddy science behind second-hand smoke statistics (there’s a US Supreme Court decision, for example, that cites the Environmental Protection Agency for violating its own scientific standards in declaring second-hand smoke a toxin), point out that we’re all going to die of something anyway, decry the attempt of the government to legislate what I can and cannot do with my own body. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that he smoked because he thought it was a fairly reliable, fairly dignified form of suicide, and at one time I’d have defended his right, and my own, to engage in that noble pursuit.

More so, in my former life as a restaurant owner, I’d have shouted a pale grey streak about the ability of people who are not my customers to dictate what I can or cannot allow my customers to do inside the business I had invested my life’s savings in and worked night and day to keep alive. But whatever.

That was when I thought we were talking about rights and freedoms, and we were assuming a degree of personal agency among those who choose to go into a bar and those who choose to work in them (if you’re offended by nudity, you don’t apply to be a busboy at The Brass Rail — same thing). If that were the case, then I’d have won the argument every time.

But of course we’re really talking about morality. Health is the new virtue, and smoking is the most obvious affront to the faithful. Smoking, the new puritans have decided (and I know that they make up a solid majority of the population), is a moral failing engaged in by those who can’t control themselves. The smelly, addicted hordes who care so little about their own bodies, probably don’t eat right, probably drink too much and definitely should know not to engage in their sinful indulgences in any place where they might come into contact with members of the healthy and the clean-living.

After years of arguing my case, I’m worn down. I pay the outrageous taxes on each package of cigarettes I buy (which in my case adds up to about $2,500 a year) without complaining, I go outside to smoke no matter what the weather and, until now, I’ve been content to confine my indoor smoking to places that serve my other favourite toxins on tap. And come June 1, I guess I’ll go quietly, begging forgiveness, to smoke outside.

And all of our clothes will smell better and maybe I’ll smoke and drink less and maybe eventually I’ll quit altogether and live longer and healthier for it. But I won’t enjoy it.

Mark Twain once said, “If there are no cigars in heaven, I shall not go.” I’m with him. If the high priests of health currently crusading against the demon weed are running the place, I’ll join Twain in the enclosed, separately ventilated louge of the other place. Until, of course, the infernal bureaucracy bans smoking there, too.

Originally published in Eye Weekly May 27, 2004. 

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